Security conditions in south Syria continue to deteriorate as targeted killings, extortion and the looming threat of a regime escalation prompt serious fears among the province’s vulnerable residents. A series of attacks targeting the former opposition in recent weeks—including the assassinations of multiple fighters from Ahmad al-Awdeh’s 8th Brigade has prompted the brigade to turn yet further inwards, urging its members to limit their movements and exercise extreme caution. While assassinations continue, the regime has begun reinforcing its positions around a half-dozen communities in Daraa amid reports that it will soon launch limited incursions to search for wanted individuals in these communities. Ongoing talks between former opposition groups and the regime in western Daraa stalled as the regime threatens communities with military escalation.
Attached Map: Recent Developments in South Syria – 2 August 2022
- Suwayda confrontation: A coalition of Druze community militias attacked and dispersed one of Suwayda province’s most influential Iranian-backed militia groups last week in an unprecedented escalation against the regime and its allies in Suwayda. A group of Druze fighters made up of armed community members and led by the Rijal al-Karama (Men of Dignity) movement attacked the militia’s positions and headquarters in the western Suwayda town of Atil, pushing its leader—local commander Raji Falhout—to flee the area (26.7-27.7). Falhout is one of Suwayda’s post powerful warlords and drug smugglers, and possesses close ties to the regime and Hezbollah. He remains at large at the time of writing. (For more information, see ETANA’s memo, Prominent Regime-backed Militia Uprooted in Suwayda – 28 July 2022).
- Return of displaced Christians: Dozens of local Muslim notables from the Busra a-Sham area travelled to the small border town of Taysiyah in eastern Daraa alongside hundreds of Christian IDPs, the latest initiative to promote the return of the minority community to the south (15.7). Some 200 Christians participated in the visit to Taysiyah, attending a church mass and a lunch reception with Muslim figures from eastern Daraa. The visit was organized by the 8th Brigade and saw the group issue guarantees to protect any Christian who desires to return to the area from violence or discrimination. The 8th Brigade and its leader have previously come under sharp criticism from displaced Christians for failing to provide suitable security conditions for returning IDPs in areas such as Kharaba and Jbeb.
Threats of Escalation
- Regime threatens escalation: The regime has gradually increased its presence around former opposition areas in western Daraa for several weeks, issuing threats to the former opposition in a number of communities that an escalation could follow if demands are not met. As a result, tensions remain high: the regime issued a 48-hour ultimatum to community leaders in Jasim, Al-Yadudah and Tafas, demanding that they surrender a number of wanted individuals currently taking refuge in the towns (25.7), and subsequently began closing side-roads linking Tafas with other areas of western Daraa province. Tensions continue to mount in the area with roads remaining closed, while one altercation involving a regime mortar shell launched into Al-Yadudah saw a civilian killed late last week (27.7). Intermittent violence in the form of mortar strikes on unpopulated areas and hit-and-run attacks on regime forces in western Daraa continue, creating a tense local atmosphere. Ultimately, the regime is unlikely to launch a major escalation due to the difficulty in maintaining order in the area; instead, the regime is more likely to conduct a limited incursion against its most prominent rivals.
- Western Daraa infighting: Tensions are mounting between former opposition blocs and radical groups in western Daraa, with bouts of violence threatening to provoke a serious escalation. One major gulf has emerged between the largest former opposition bloc, led by Abu Morshed al-Bardan in Tafas, and ISIS cells, which continue to target former opposition members in the area. Several of al-Bardan’s men were kidnapped by ISIS cell members and executed (19.7), a move that greatly heightened tensons in Tafas—even prompting a rival faction led by former opposition commander Khaldoun a-Zoubi to increase his defenses in fear of being blamed for the killing. Certainly, the disjointed nature of the former opposition in Tafas ultimately hampers any unified response to the regime’s ongoing threats of escalation towards western Daraa.
- Quneitra tensions: Regime forces issued threats to local leaders from Jubata al-Khashab, indicating that the regime would launch an attack against the town should they fail to hand over several wanted individuals (25.7).
- 8th Brigade threatened: The 8th Brigade entered an almost unprecedented state of alert in eastern Daraa, issuing orders to its commanders to exercise extreme caution, avoid unnecessary movement and to report all travel plans to the brigade’s command (6.7). The moves came after weeks of attacks and assassinations targeting members of the 8th Brigade and former opposition in south Syria; the most recent attack saw one 8th Brigade member killed and three others injured in an ISIS-led attack near Musayfrah (5.7).. The current tensions and fears of violence have pushed some of the brigade’s members to desert, with several Bedouin fighters deserting their posts and returning to their homes in rural eastern Daraa (13.7).
- Extortion: Armed groups and criminal gangs in south Syria are increasingly turning to extortion as a way of securing funds, characterized by death threats and attacks targeting residents. In one prominent instance, a Muzayrib resident paid $10,000 to an armed group after weeks of threats against his life and two separate bombings that targeted his farmhouse and workplace (3.7). Two other local businessmen were also subject to death threats and blackmail in Muzayrib (14.7). Extortion, blackmail, theft and other crimes have grown increasingly common in Daraa amid the economic deterioration of the last several months.
- Nassib clashes: Clashes erupted between rival members of a prominent family in the border town of Nassib in eastern Daraa, killing four individuals and injuring several others (6.7). The fighting took place between an armed group led by Moataz a-Radi and a second led by Fayez a-Radi, with both groups accusing the other of carrying out targeted killings. Fayez a-Radi’s group went on to deploy forces throughout the town as tensions persisted (7.7). Feuds between rival families or factions within tribes are not uncommon in south Syria.